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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 49, Dated Dec 22 , 2007

More than Five-Point Someone

Nussbaum’s idea that deculturisation dehumanises the IIT grad is wrong


AHMEDABAD burned. The Sangh Parivar thugs attacked innocent Muslims and the police maintained they had no orders to protect them. Narendra Modi’s administration cted in ways which prompted a Supreme Court judge to compare him to Nero. There were many activists and journalists witnessing that orgy of violence and recording it. Among those who wrote
movingly, angrily, and eloquently about the ghastly incidents at Gulbarg Society was Raj Kamal Jha, Executive Editor of The Indian Express. Not only did he narrate what he saw and heard, he pieced together missing strands meticulously, like an engineer building a superstructure. But he would, wouldn’t he? For Jha was an engineer by training: he studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, graduating in 1987.

Illustration: Neelakash Kshetrimayum

And yet the American academic Martha Nussbaum condemned the “IIT mentality” in these pages for the decline of humanism in India. In her book, The Clash Within, Nussbaum weaves an intricate argument, in which she links technological, political, religious and economic forces which have permitted the rise of Hindutva,
in particular its hold over educated middle- class Indians. Her exact words in the interview: “This IIT mentality — become technically competent engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India.”

To be sure, there is some logic to this argument. Indian school children have to decide early on the career they wish to pursue. By the time they are 15, they must give up many subjects. Smarter kids are pressured to take part in gruelling exams for a spot in the IITs. Once there, the coursework is primarily technical; when an IIT grad starts working, the exposure he (even today a majority of IIT grads are men) has had to history is dimly recollected, if at all. As economist Ajay Shah, himself an IIT alumnus puts it: “Most people in India are getting too little history, politics or philosophy. Anyone with a semblance of IQ gets pushed into the science or engineering track and then you’re down to Amar Chitra Katha renditions of history.” But the conclusion Nussbaum draws — that this deculturisation somehow dehumanises the IIT grad — could not be more wrong. And it certainly does not make them supporters of genocide. IIT grads are often brilliant, with a quirky sense of humour, knowledgeable in some arcane aspect and respectful of the scientific method.

In every society there is the divide between what CP Snow called the Two Cultures. Indeed, Rajappa Iyer, another IIT grad says: “Some of what Nussbaum says rings true. Technocrats, economic libertarians are not empathetic and therefore propose solutions that don’t take human nature and consequence into account.” And yet the same IITs that Nussbaum criticises produced not only Jha but also Shripad Dharmadhikari, an associate of Medha Patkar; social entrepreneur Vijay Mahajan, who runs innovative lending programmes for livelihood assistance; Arvind Kejriwal, the Magsaysay-winning anticorruption crusader and left -leaning journalist Praful Bidwai. One of the loudest critics of communalism was Narayana Murthy of Infosys, who devoted his Darbari Seth lecture to expressing his anguish over the violence.

In other words, a large number of IIT grads think beyond their calculators. There is a strong meritocratic streak at the IITs— the students who get through the entrance exams do so because they’re smart; they are not part of India’s old-money elite, nor are they from the power elite. Shah adds:“My sense is that IIT-ians take pride in having fought their way up the food chain in a meritocratic way.” Contrary to what its critics say, IIT is a melting pot in India where the students often don’t know each other’s caste labels. As one grad told me: “You just don’t notice those things. What matters is being able to solve problems in fluid mechanics.”

As a result, IIT campuses are remarkably devoid of student politics, mainstream political parties, or coalitions representing the ugly reality of India interfering with the academic community. The IITs help the Indian undergraduate break with some of the more horrible aspects and difficulties of India. That’s a matter to rejoice. There is another famous campus where politics is ever-present, and Indian reality intrudes all the time, consuming the lives of its students. India is omnipresent there in its myriad realities, and the campus the stepping stone to
political life. It is called the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. And it gave India Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat. Go figure.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 49, Dated Dec 22 , 2007

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